First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ
January 11, 2015
Genesis 1:1-5 | Psalm 29 | Acts 19:1-7 | Mark 1:4-11
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I’m reading the latest novel by the writer Marilynne Robinson. If you don’t know her, you should. If you’re wondering whether it’s possible to be smart and intellectual, and a deeply faithful Christian, she’s proof that you can be both. The book is called Lila, and is about a woman whose hard, hard life unexpectedly changes shape. Lila doesn’t even know her real name, knows nothing of her family, grew up barely hanging on to the edges of survival and society. But she drifts into a town called Gilead, and there she finds herself drawn without knowing why to a little church, and to its preacher, John Ames. There’s a scene when Reverend Ames baptizes Lila, just the two of them down by the river, the catfish she has just caught for her supper still flopping in the dust. Lila tried out one baptism class at the church and never came back; she can barely read the Bible that she stole. But she prepares for her baptism by changing one threadbare, hand-me-down dress for another and smoothing her hair, and the preacher puts water on her head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Afterwards Lila isn’t sure what she thinks of it all, and she tries to wash it all off again. But something has started shifting in her, and she whose motto was ‘Don’t trust nobody’ reluctantly finds herself trusting John Ames – enough to marry him, even though for a long time after their wedding she continues to think of running away. Despite all she has done and lived through, and without really asking about any of it, he loves her. And so she begins to recognize herself as beloved, of this man, and of God. Which is not easy. Because it means she has to let go of the life she is used to, and of her freedom to leave and to trust nobody. In order to know herself as beloved, she has to let go of her control, and trust.
It’s a moving story, because knowing ourselves to be the beloved is hard, hard work for many of us. Especially if we can come up with good reasons why not, like what’s happened to us, or what we’ve done. Not me, I’m not beloved of God – look at my life and how terrible it’s been, that wouldn’t have happened to me if God really loved me. No, I’m not beloved – how can I be when I just don’t measure up to what I think I should be? And it is hard to know ourselves to be God’s beloved when we have other ways to define ourselves instead, ways we tell our own story. God loves you – well that’s nice. But what’s really more important today is that I get this book published, or make this sale, get my kid into that school and climb another rung up the ladder. I don’t have time for this Beloved sort of stuff, nice as it may be.
The thing is, if who we are is God’s beloved, then that might just lead to us having to change. We might just have to let go of what we’ve always believed to be true about ourselves and our purpose. We might have to let go of our so-called freedom, because someone else – God – might just have a total claim on us instead. You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased. That voice is hard to hear.
It’s a feast day in the church today, the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. So of course we heard the gospel story about Jesus being baptized, this key first step in his ministry as an adult. I don’t know if you noticed it, but there was also a lot of mention in all the readings about the Holy Spirit. There was the Genesis passage to start, with the Spirit of God as a creative force, the wind in the very beginning, moving over the deep. There was the conversation in Acts, where Paul asks the disciples in Ephesus about the Holy Spirit and their baptism, and then lays his hands on them so they ‘receive’ the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues and prophesying. And then in the story of Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus. So what is this Holy Spirit?
We might be tempted to consign the Holy Spirit to the realm of ‘things about God we don’t think about very often.’ If we’re regular churchgoers, once a year at Pentecost we get all Holy-Spiritty, and we hear a sermon about the Spirit, and so we know it has something to do with fire and the color red. If we’ve been part of other more charismatic branches of the Christian church we may have had more personal experience of the Spirit, seen it in action in the worship services or felt it in our own spirits. But I’d bet for most of us the Holy Spirit is in the terra incognita zone – God the Creator, got it. Jesus, yes, I think I get him, or at least in some way. Spirit, hmm.
So try out this idea. I think the Holy Spirit is God as we most often experience God. The Holy Spirit is why you’re here in church on a Sunday. It’s what you feel when the community comes together, in worship when the music is particularly wonderful and people are singing and the light is pouring through and tears come to your eyes. Or when someone in the community is suffering and people line up in ways both obvious and quiet to surround and sustain that person in their trouble. It’s what prompts you to reach outside of yourself and do something for a stranger, rebuilding a home after a hurricane or simply holding the door open with a smile. It’s the agony you feel when injustice or violence happens to people you don’t even know, and the anger that moves you to do something about it. It’s the feeling of deep peace that comes upon you when you least expect it, alone in a room by yourself. The Holy Spirit is woven through the story of your life – and the Holy Spirit is God telling you, you are my Beloved.
There’s a spiritual practice called writing your spiritual autobiography. It’s a way of looking back at your life and seeing where God was active in the past: when particular people guided you in particular ways, or you read a book that spoke to you, or you made a big decision that started you on another path. The idea is that the clearer we are on how God has acted in our life up to this point, the clearer we can be on where God might be acting now, or in the future. It’s an essential way of recognizing God’s fingerprints, you could say. It also can be the basis for faith: when we can see that God was faithful with us in the past, we can trust that God will be faithful to us in the future. Whereas if we fail to listen to the wisdom of that voice in the past, we might fail to recognize it in the future – not to mention repeat the mistakes we could have learned from in our past.
You could say that St Michael’s has been doing this kind of spiritual autobiography over the last few years: looking at your history to see what is true, knowing yourselves now through the lens of the past as you wrote your story and discerned together about the kind of church you wanted to be. You saw some real signs of the Holy Spirit’s work, I think – the longtime ministry of the Saturday Kitchen and the totally open-door generosity it embodies…and long before that, the mission work and social ministries this church was known for in Upper Manhattan. The wonderful diversity of the community, a rare place where people of different backgrounds, classes, colors and orientations could come and feel welcome…and the work to heal from times when that diversity wasn’t handled as well. The different people who have felt drawn to learn and to serve here as clergy and seminarians, going from this place to other communities around the world, to share the experience they had here of lively faith lived out. And the basic love and support offered to so many who have come through these doors, both tangibly and intangibly. All of that has been the Holy Spirit at work; all of that is God’s voice saying, hello Beloved. Let me bring you together with my other beloveds. Let me make you a beloved community: with you I am well pleased.
So now we’re beginning a new chapter in that history. It’s the feast day of recognizing Jesus’ new start on his ministry, so it’s a good time to be doing that for ourselves too. And whether we see it clearly or not, the message from our past and here in our present is the same: we are God’s beloved. With no regard for who we have been or what we’ve done, with no promises required or made about how we will be in the future, we are God’s beloved. It’s wonderful and it’s terrible all at the same time. Because if we are so beloved, then our job is to live out being the beloved. To give up our own story and control of the outcomes and let God love and lead us instead. And to see and recognize how beloved every other person around us is as well – here in church today and all around us in this city. There’s no five-point plan for how to live this way. The details aren’t mapped out for each of our lives, or for the future of our church of St Michael’s. But it takes a whole lot of praying and listening, and hearing other people’s stories, and learning and living into our central story of God’s love and redemption of the world. So we’ll be doing a lot of that here together in this new chapter, as we get to know each other, as we pray together and learn more of God’s story in this place.
You are my beloved child, says God. All that other stuff you say about yourself – not so important. All that attempt to control it all – you can drop it now. Let God say who you are. Let God help you find your proper place. Be who you are created to be, and recognize others for who they are created to be as well. And so God can make of the world the beloved community it is meant to be.
And so, in order to ground ourselves afresh in who we truly are, I invite you to join with me in renewing our baptismal vows.